Don’t suffer in silence. Own it.

Silence is not associated with good conversations. In social situations, we value those with the knack to keep on talking, the friends who can parry every awkward pause and slip-up with wit, erudition and a smile. “Conversation should touch everything, but should concentrate itself on nothing,” counseled Oscar Wilde—a man who was himself so blessed with the gift of the gab that even his adversaries (and he had many) would admit to being relieved to see him across the table at a dinner party.
But often, in a crowded room, it is not the people talking the loudest who are most in control. In Pride and Prejudice, it was Mr. Darcy’s appearance of being above the fray of societal tittle-tattle that made him the object of Elizabeth’s affections. Almost two centuries later, every woman heroine Bridget Jones would greet the overlong pauses of her own aloof Mark Darcy with similarly weak knees. The “strong silent type” has proved a resilient romantic lead.

And, while silence has often connoted subordination, some of our most powerful images of resistance in recent years are of people refusing to respond or engage. Think of Ieshia Evans—the Black Lives Matter protester whose image went viral last July when she was pictured facing down Baton Rouge riot police, standing calmly in a sundress, her head raised as if she were looking through, not at, the men trying to remove her from the road. As she told CBS News afterward: “It was just a lot of nonverbal communication. Sometimes, silence speaks volumes.”
That not speaking can convey meaning is clear. Cicero—Roman orator and perhaps the world’s first etiquette coach—wrote in 44 B.C. that “silence is one of the great arts of conversation,” along with taking turns, sticking to subjects of general interest and not getting grumpy. Ever since, writers have delighted in elaborating on his maxim. The 17th-century memoirist François Duc de La Rochefoucauld identified four types of silence: one that signaled approval, one that conveyed condemnation, one that showed respect and one that indicated discretion. He was writing at a time when such things mattered. From the 17th until the early 20th century, literary salons and coffee houses were Europe’s most important intellectual forums, and reputations could be made or undone by conversational aptitude alone. Given the seriousness of the matter, the duc cautioned that it would be best for most people to avoid trying to deploy silence in an intentional way: It was a mastery “granted to very few,” and even they were prone to mistakes.

The best description of the particular power that staying silent can convey comes from the great German philosopher of language, Martin Heidegger. In his seminal 1927 work, Being and Time, he pinpoints silence as the thing that has the power to elevate a conversation above platitudes: “Keeping silent authentically is possible only in genuine discoursing,” he wrote. “One’s reticence makes something manifest, and does away with ‘idle talk’.”
Heidegger juggled words in such a way that he was notoriously difficult even for other philosophers to understand. To clarify what “keeping silent authentically” involves, I sought the counsel of a less theoretical commentator: Judy Apps, the British author of The Art of Conversation.
On the phone from her home in Surrey, Apps tells me she is in agreement with Heidegger (although she does not frame it as such) that often the most confident people are the ones who are happy to let silences sit for a while. “People who take their time and are at ease enough to not mind the silence are the most impressive [conversationalists] and often come up with the best answers too,” she says.

Her case in point is Barack Obama, whose interviews she studied when writing her book. “You’d hear the question come from the press, and he didn’t leap straight in with a formulaic reply. He gave it a little pause and it felt really powerful. It felt like he was really considering the question,” she says.
Heidegger shared the Duc de La Rochefoucauld’s skepticism that we could “learn” silence: “Non-skilled conversationalists render silence that seemingly signifies their subordination,” he cautioned.
Apps is more optimistic. She believes that the main thing that keeps a silence from feeling powerful is when you stop projecting outward. “We retreat into internal conversations, thinking ‘Oh God, I don’t know what to say next,’ so we’ve broken the connection by not being there with the other person,” she says. “I think all bad silences are versions of that, of breaking a connection between the two people.” Consequently, she firmly dismisses my suggestion that I might start inserting meaningful silences by pausing to check my phone: “You haven’t left a silence, you’ve done an action, which is the same as words.”

Her beginner’s advice is simple: “The initial step is not to whip in immediately with the next question. When we do that we often miss the plot.”
If even that feels daunting, she says, just remember that no “awkward” silence is as long as it feels: “If someone timed it for you, it would probably be about three-quarters of a second,” she says. “What people think has been a horribly long silence never is, ever.”